Wedding veil  Jane with her ethereal, gossamer-thin wedding veil in Thornfield Hall, showing Michael Vale's versatile set design. Pictures: BrinkhoffM+Âgenberg

Jane Eyre

Birmingham Rep


Forget reading dog eared copies of Jane Eyre for Eng Lit at school, this is Charlotte Brontë’s poor, plain and little heroine brought to vibrant life on stage.

Director Sally Cookson and her company have not so much adapted the much-loved classic as stripped it back to its bare bones and then rebuilt the essentials as a lively piece of modern theatre.

And it is all enhanced by Michael Vale’s white box set dominated by platforms, steps and ladders which provide the foundation for an ever-changing staging, made more dramatic by Aideen Malone’s intelligent lighting flooding the stage, for instance, to create a Red Room, or picking out poignant moments on a darkened stage, creating shadows, atmosphere or drama.

This National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic production opens and closes with the same words: “It’s a girl”. First for the birth of Jane, the mewling, if not the puking, provided Jane, played by Nadia Clifford, as her (much) younger self, and finally as a sign-off line after her own child is born.

Clifford has the look of a waif and gives us a Jane you just want to hold in your arms to protect her from all the ills of fate life keeps chucking at her. Mind you she can get quite fiery if she feels she is being unjustly or unfairly treated, and is never afraid to fight her corner.

First she loses her parents to typhus and is taken in at Gateshead Hall as his own by her kindly uncle, except he then ups and dies leaving her in the hands of his wife Mrs Reed, played with a delicious air of cruelty and good old nastiness by Lynda Rooke.

jane school

Jane, played by Nadia Clifford, at Lowood which gave her both grief and an education

Rooke pops up later in complete contrast as the kindly, friendly Mrs Fairfax, the housekeeper at Thornfield Hall, home of Edward Rochester.

Making life even more miserable are the three Reed children with son John especially cruel, even attacking her. He gets bitten for his pains and is fated to become a drunken wastrel who finally tops himself – now there’s karma for you. The hall’s humourless air is emphasised by dour family portraits hanging from the flies.

Her only ally at Gateshead is the servant Bessie played by Evelyn Miller, who is later to be reincarnated as the haughty, snobbish, society lady, Blanche, who has unlikely love interest Rochester in her sights and then, to show real versatility she thumps her, or rather, his, bible as the Rev St John Rivers, who wants Jane to head off to Africa as his missionary wife.

That is to come, though, and back to the Reeds and from the frying pan of Gateshead Jane finds herself in the fire of Lowood, a school for poor orphan girls that would have given Ofsted apoplexy. It is run by Mr Brocklehurst, a man of God of the fire and brimstone variety, who seems to have block bookings in hell ready for any real or perceived misdemeanour by the girls. Here dull, shapeless, smock dresses hang from the flies.

Brocklehurst, with a hint of Ian Paisley about him, is played by Paul Mundell, who is later to provide a little light relief playing Pilot, Rochester’s dog, with an always wagging tale in a splendidly inventive performance. He manages the characteristics so well you start to wonder if these days he sleeps kicking his legs and dreaming of rabbits.

From gloomy Lowood Jane heads to Thornfield to take up a position as governess – a role Brontë herself undertook -with her charge Rochester’s French ward Adele, played by Hanna Bristow, who plays a whole range of roles from Helen, Jane’s friend and fellow pupil who dies at Lowood, to St John’s sister.

jane and rochester

Jane finds some solace in the arms of Edward Rochester played by Tim Delap

Thornfield is marked by a series of lights from the flies, or held by cast members, a modern take on candles and chandeliers, hanging brightly above the stage. Here she falls for the “peculiar” Edward Rochester, and he for her, which brings to a head Rochester’s dark secret – his mad wife in the attic.

Cookson shuns the idea of having some red-eyed, wild haired loony in a flowing nightdress racing around screeching, and instead we have the quite beautiful voice of international mezzo soprano Melanie Marshall. A highlight was Noël Coward’s Mad about the boy, which, on the face of it, seems an incongruous choice but, in reality, tells its own part of the story – and shows the remarkable versatility of Marshall’s voice, opera to jazz.

Music, incidentally, composed by Benji Bower, comes from a trio of musicians and singers tucked in at the rear of the stage under a platform.

The wife's existance is revealed by a lawyer, in the shape of Miller again and Mr Mason, brother of the mad wife, which brings Mundell back into the human racecomp.

The revelation sees Jane leave Thornfield to become destitute, by circumstance rather than choice I hasten to add, where she is taken in by St John and his sister before her dramatic return to Thornfield for a happy(ish) ending with Rochester, played with splendid unpredictability by Tim Delap. Rochester is not the easiest of men to like, a bit odd, a bit aloof, a lot strange - but Delap makes him not only quite likeable but very human so that you feel for him and his equally troubled life. You just know he and Jane are made for each other.

There are chunks of the novel missing, Jane’s inheritance for example, along with a whole host of characters, and, whisper it quietly, Jane’s firstborn was really a boy – but who’s complaining.

Cookson has stripped the story back to bare essentials –  even so it still runs to three hours including interval - but avoiding the sub plots and extraneous characters that populate the novel means that you are left with a clear, strong storyline which is easy to follow whether you know the book or not.

The adventure playground style set gives great flexibility with minimal props for instant scene changes while the cast creating a Greek chorus of thoughts surrounding Jane as she questions herself or makes decisions is a clever dramatic device. Real flames for the two fires at Thornfield adds to the drama.

The hard-working cast of 10, including the three musicians, fill the stage with a host of characters bustling from scene to scene, changing roles and accents with great skill, all of which helps everything move along at a lively pace and  makes three hours fly by. The result is clever, inventive, highly watchable theatre. A literary classic given a contemporary makeover. To 16-09-17

Roger Clarke


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